Best desktop environments for Debian

Under Linux the desktop environment, or graphical environment is independent of the OS (Operating system) in contrast to Windows which, as its name says, incorporated windows as part of its core rather than an optional feature we could add to MS-DOS. I won’t explain deeply that Linux is a kernel rather than an OS and all additional components are complementary including the graphical environment but it is what brings the flexibility on tools choice.

Initially Linux wasn’t developed for domestic use, based on Unix it provided multiuser, multitask and networking functions and the graphical environment wasn’t an initial priority, actually in contrast to Windows servers Linux servers lack of graphical environment because it is unnecessary (but optional, as with any Linux installation).

For domestic or professional use, users need a graphical interface of which you can choose among many options, some of which will be explained in this article.

The disclaimer is no one can affirm what the best desktop environments are since the choice is based on individual needs and tastes, this article lists some desktop environments currently remain unused like Fluxbox because I consider it great, sadly the Linux community disagreed.


Like MATE which will be described later, Cinnamon was developed by Linux users disappointed with GNOME 3 changes. Cinnamon, like MATE, was developed based on GNOME 2 and it is currently the default desktop environment for Linux Mint. Cinnamon offers native transparency and great Desktop effects by default, by default Cinnamon allows to add nice extensions such as desktop cube, watermark and other functional effects.

Installing Cinnamon on Debian:

To install Cinnamon on Debian run:


Press OK to continue

Select Cinnamon to continue by pressing the space key, then press TAB to select OK and press ENTER to start installing it.

After reboot you’ll be able to select the Window manager you want to use.


Fluxbox is a minimalist desktop environment, easy to customize and fully customizable. While it may be considered hard for regular users it is a very friendly graphic interface for users who need to interact with many terminals simultaneously. It is also a great option for weak hardware due its low resources requirement. Instead of docks and menu bar Fluxbox menu is displayed with the mouse’s right click, which can be easily configured and customized by editing its configuration file. While by default Fluxbox does not support icons on the desktop you can add them.

Fluxbox is the lighter desktop environment listed in this article.

Installing Fluxbox on Debian:

First make sure you have the X Window Server, on the console run:

apt-get install xorg

To install Fluxbox you can use apt, in my case it was already installed, to install it run:

apt-get install fluxbox

To start Fluxbox by default we need to edit or create the file .xinitrc within the user directory adding the line:

exec startfluxbox

Then restart your X server or reboot.

The initial screen is empty ready for the user to customize it, it is by default the ugliest desktop environment after installation but it has a great potential to leave it very nice, Fluxbox has nothing to envy other desktop environments if customized properly. Googling you can find many themes and styles, an example of an edited theme would be:

Note: Screenshot taken from Fluxbox official website.


The default interface for many distributions including the most popular ones, GNOME together with KDE used to be leader among X Window interfaces. This trend started to change since GNOME 3 interface which aims to keep the same functions and usability for all devices without adaptability, losing all the advantages of using a computer over a mobile device. The menu and task bars and desktop icons were removed. These changes on GNOME 3 promoted the development of MATE, an interface based on traditional GNOME 3 which will be described later.

Note: screenshot taken from GNOME official website.

KDE Plasma 5

KDE Plasma 5 is together with MATE the most friendly interface for new Linux users coming from Microsoft Windows due to what is called “desktop metaphor” (the classic desktop we all know with menu bar,taskbar, icons and applications on desktop such as bin trash, etc.).
In contrast to its main counterpart GNOME, KDE kept the menu and task bars and allows to configure icons on the desktop.

Note: screenshot taken from KDE official website.

Installing KDE Plasma 5 on Debian:

As with Cinnamon, to install KDE Plasma run:


Once the menu opens select KDE Plasma with the space bar. Then press TAB and OK to continue.

As with Cinnamon, once you reboot  or logout you’ll be able to select KDE Plasma.


MATE defines itself as the continuation of GNOME 2, as Argentinian I would like to clarify it’s name is based on the popular Argentinian/Uruguayan drink. MATE has CAJA, based on Nautilus file manager as many new developments based on GNOME tools such as gedit (Pluma), MATE Terminal (gnome terminal), etc. The best description of MATE would be defining it as GNOME 2, as its official website says.

Installing MATE on Debian:

As with previous Window managers to install mate run:


If asked press OK to confirm and continue.

Select MATE using the space bar, then TAB and ENTER to press OK and continue

Let the installation end and after login in or booting again you’ll be able to select MATE as desktop environment.


XFCE launch coincided with BlackBox’s sunset and almost Fluxbox’s too. XFCE was an innovative light interface which included native transparence and great effects, it includes both a menu and dock and possibility to search, like Fluxbox it is highly customizable.

Installing XFCE on Debian:

Under Debian the installation process is the same than for previous desktop environments.
To install it run:


Select XFCE with the space bar, then press TAB and ENTER to hit OK

Let the installation process end and upon reboot o login you’ll be able to choose XFCE.


The main conclusion of this article are Fluxbox is the lighter X Window environment listed following XFCE, while GNOME 3 isn’t recommendable for PC users being MATE and Cinnamon developments the evidence, KDE remains fidel to users experience.

I hope this article helped to understand a little on X Window and about some of the most popular graphic environments available for Linux users, keep following LinuxHint for more tips and updates on Linux and networking.

About the author

David Adams

David Adams is a System Admin and writer that is focused on open source technologies, security software, and computer systems.